The very best pizzas are made in wood-fired brick ovens, where the intense heat and the aromatic smoke produce conditions that cannot be matched in ordinary electric or gas-fired ovens. The pizzas are pushed deep into the hottest part of the oven on wooden paddles, the dough exploding into life as it hits the red-hot brick to cook in two or three minutes, not something most of us can duplicate. However, this not to say that you can't make good pizzas or focaccia (olive oil bread) at home.
At the Orvieto cooking school in Umbria, where I teach each summer, I had a lesson in pizza making from a man who had been cooking pizzas all his life. What impressed me was the simplicity of the dough, which had very little oil in it, and the fact that his tomato topping was commercially produced passata used straight from the packet He cooked them in an outdoor wood-fired oven and the results were sensational, the crust pliant but crisp underneath, the best I have ever tasted.
The chef Wolfgang Puck pioneered new-wave pizza in Los Angeles some ten years ago, with combination toppings of things like smoked salmon and cream cheese. Overnight he turned America’s staple into something fashionable and expensive. The imitators moved fast on the heels of the innovator, and Californian restaurants vied with one another to create chic and unusual toppings, many of them frankly bizarre.
I prefer the most basic versions, notably the original Neapolitan pizza margharita of cheese, tomato and basil. Here we use only the very best buffalo Mozzarella, with the tomato skinned and diced and served with basil leaves as a side salad.
Make the dough: sift the flour into the food processor, together with the salt, sugar and instant yeast Turn on at full speed and add
Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead by hand for 2 or 3 minutes. Brush a bowl with a little olive oil, put in the dough in a ball and brush all over with a little more oil. Cover with a cloth and put to prove in a warm place until it has doubled in bulk. This should take 1 hour.
Half an hour before you want to cook the pizzas, preheat the oven to its highest setting. If using a pizza stone, put it near the top of the oven • Drain the Mozzarella and cut it into
Prepare the pizzas: knock down the dough and divide into two pieces. Working on a heavily floured surface, flatten these into rounds using your fingers and working from the centre outwards. If using pizza pans, press the dough out in them. Brush with a little oil and arrange pieces of mozzarella over each with space in between and leaving a clear edge round the outside. Drizzle a tablespoon of olive oil over each. Do not leave to rise a second time, but use at once.
Ideally you want to be able to slide the pizzas on to the hot stones. This is not easy, and you may achieve better results using pizza pans. (Experiment without toppings to see which technique works best for you. The cost will be negligible.)
Cook for 10-15 minutes until the cheese has melted and is bubbling hot While they are baking, cut the tomatoes into quarters or eighths. Make a vinaigrette by mixing the vinegar with the olive oil and season. Toss the tomatoes in it. Tear the basil leaves and mix in with the olives, if using.
Serve the pizza cut into wedges, with the tomato salad on one side of the plate.
© 1993 Alastair Little and Richard Whittington estate. All rights reserved.